After a $15.3 million auction, Ernie Barnes collectors may soon try to cash in. Can the market survive a flood?

A painting by artist and former NFL player Ernie Barnes stole the show at Christie’s 20th Century Evening Sale last week. Fierce competition for the 1976 work, The sugar shack, boosted the price to 76 times its high estimate, an astonishing $15.3 million. The painting, which appeared on the cover of Marvin Gaye’s 1976 album I want you and in the 1970s TV show Good time, depicts a happy crowd dancing to live music.

Barnes is known for his vibrant paintings of African American life in his characteristic “neo-Mannerist” style, depicting elegant, long, flowing figures with almost balletic limbs.

Following the sale, it was announced that Barnes’ estate would be represented by New York galleries Ortuzar Projects and Andrew Kreps, which co-curated an exhibition of the artist’s work last year. Katya Kazakina from Artnet News too revealed that the owner of Ortuzar Projects, Ales Ortuzar, was actually the shipper of The sugar shacksuggesting that the timing of the deal for Barnes might have been more carefully orchestrated than it seemed.

We took the opportunity to assess Barnes’ sparse market history from the Artnet price database. Here’s what we found.

The context

Auction record: $15.3 million, made at Christie’s in May 2022

Barnes performance in 2021

Lots sold: 15

Purchased in: 2

Sell ​​rate: 88.2%

Average selling price: $139,494

Average estimate: $38,467

Total sales: $2 million

Best paint price: $550,000

Lowest paint price: $14,000

Lowest Overall Price: $14,000, for painting Race day.

© 2022 Artnet Worldwide Corporation.


  1. Faithful follow-up. During his lifetime, various personalities from the sports and entertainment world collected Barnes. His work was popular among 70s and 80s athletes and actors, including Eddie Murphy, owner of sister painting to The sugar shack. Many buyers, such as Los Angeles collector Jim Epstein (who sold a group of works to Ortuzar six months ago), bought works directly from the artist and kept them for decades. Today, the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art has more than 10 paintings by Barnes, and the second largest institutional holding is at the California African American Museum.
  2. Representation matters. Prior to 2008, Barnes’ work had only come to auction four times. Then, in 2019, UTA Fine Arts started representing his estate, and things started to change. A great barnes exhibition at UTA Artist Space in 2020, which Barnes hosted before his death, introduced his work to new collectors.
  3. Pay. 2021 has been a landmark year for Barnes Market where the fruits of promotion have begun to bear fruit. His work finally broke the $100,000 mark auction and even set a new bid record with the sale of $550,000 of ballroom soul (1978), at Christie’s New York in November. Eighteen of his top 20 sales have all come in the past two years, and the past week has been a big moment for Barnes’ estate. Apart The sugar shackChristie’s also sold storm dance (1977) at its Post-War and Contemporary sale for $2.3 million (from a high estimate of $150,000), and Heritage sold Billiard room (circa 1970) for $131,250.
  4. Ballistic bodies. Barnes’ most sought-after works are paintings that are reminiscent The sugar shackwith popular common themes being group scenes featuring complex compositions of many figures, and the corps de ballet that feature in his “Basketball” and “Football” series.
  5. Market Playbook. The Barnes Estate is believed to contain hundreds of paintings and, of course, following the success of the auction last week, the announcement that the Barnes Estate is now being replaced by New York galleries Andrew Kreps and Ortuzar Projects. Galleries are already adjusting primary market prices to reflect auction demand, and Kreps sold a 1987 work, Study for the Assist, at Frieze New York for $75,000, telling Katya Kazakina that a few weeks ago it would have cost half that amount.
Ernie Barnes, <i>cool quarterback</i> (1991).  Courtesy of the Estate of Ernie Barnes, Andrew Kreps, New York, and Ortuzar Projects, New York.” width=”1024″ height=”768″ srcset=” app/news-upload/2022/05/Ernie-Barnes-AO-1742-Cool-Quarterback-1991-1024×768.jpg 1024w, -Barnes-AO-1742-Cool-Quarterback-1991-300×225.jpg 300w, 1991-1536×1152.jpg 1536w,×38.jpg 50w, https:// 1800w” sizes=”(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px”/></p>
<p id=Ernie Barnes, cool quarterback (1991). Courtesy of the Estate of Ernie Barnes, Andrew Kreps, New York, and Ortuzar Projects, New York.


Barnes’ steep market descent over the past three years can be attributed to the perfect storm of factors: securing representation of galleries and players invested in developing a cohesive market strategy, meeting broader trends of reassessment of the neglected artists of the last century; and an increased interest in narrative and figurative art.

There will no doubt be a flood of Barnes’ works coming up for auction from other collectors willing to cash in, and it remains to be seen whether the market could survive an upheaval.

Several lots to watch will go on sale on Thursday, May 26, including a 1971 work titled The conductor, which will likely exceed its high estimate of $35,000 when it arrives at Bonhams New York. During this time, Christie’s Hong Kong will offer Listen (1980) with an estimate of HKD$800,000 to HKD$1,200,000 ($101,912 to $152,868), and it is unclear what will happen when the rising market meets competition from Asian bidders. The sales will undoubtedly create additional marketing power for the joint exhibition Kreps and Ortuzar are planning for 2023, and UTA Artist Space has also announced an exhibition in February 2023.

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Laura J. Boyer